Sep 12 • 19M

September 12, 2022: Privately-owned tourism office opens on Downtown Mall; Albemarle to take part in Safe Streets grant after all

Plus: Albemarle County Public Schools to review name of Meriwether Lewis Elementary School

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Regular updates of what's happening in local and regional government in and around Charlottesville, Virginia from an award-winning journalist with nearly thirty years of experience.
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There are 753 minutes today between sunrise and sunset, a number that will continue dropping between now and the winter solstice. The constant shifts of these numbers are predictable and easily accessible through search engines. Yet sometimes it takes the opening lines of an episode of Charlottesville Community Engagement to turn the mysterious into the mundane. I’m Sean Tubbs, back again for another count down. 

On today’s show:

  • Updated COVID-19 boosters are available and almost everyone previous vaccinated is eligible 

  • The Chamber of Commerce has introduced the first cohort of its new Leader Lab of Charlottesville

  • The process has begun to determine if an Albemarle elementary school should continue to be named after Meriwether Lewis

  • Albemarle County will participate after all in a transportation planning grant with other localities 

  • A private group has opened up a tourism kiosk in a storefront on the Downtown Mall 

Want to read or hear more about these types of things? Sign up for free! Pay for a subscription to provide fuel for future editions!

First shout-out: Black Business Expo coming up on September 24

In today’s first Patreon-fueled shout-out, WTJU 91.1 FM wants you to know about the Charlottesville-Albemarle Black Business Expo, coming up on September 24 at the Ix Park from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Vendor registration is currently underway for the all-day event which will feature DJ sets, panel discussions, a business pitch contest, and live music from both Richelle Claiborne and Ebony Groove. Learn more about the event at blackbusinessexpo.org. 

New COVID-19 boosters are available 

Last week, the Blue Ridge Health District began offering what’s known as “bivalent boosters” that offer additional protection against strains of COVID-19 that have emerged since the original vaccines were developed. 

“It contains both that original strain and messenger-RNA targeting that original strain as well as mRNA that’s targeting the predominant circulating strains of COVID, BA.4 and BA.5, which really account for 99 percent or so of all COVID viruses that are currently circulating,” said Dr. Costi Sifti, the director of hospital epidemiology at the University of Virginia Health System. 

Dr. Sifri said some early data indicates the bivalent vaccines may protect against strains that have not yet emerged, but more study is needed. The new vaccines are available to anyone over the age of 12 who has completed a previous series of vaccines. 

“The eligibility is two months after the completion of the dose of a COVID vaccine so that’s going to be a significant number,” Dr. Sifri said. “Perhaps a majority of people are going to be eligible for this booster.” 

The Blue Ridge Health District is offering several clinics for the bivalent boosters with limited walk-ins available. Registration is strongly encouraged, and you can do so at this link. Here are some of the times and locations: 

  • Wednesdays in September at Mobi on the Mall, 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. in front of the Whiskey Jar on the Downtown Mall. 

  • Thursday, September 15 at Sentara Starr Hill Health Center, 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. inside the Jefferson City School.

  • Monday, September 19 at Fashion Square Mall in the former JCPenney parking lot, 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. (drive-thru style).  

  • Thursday, September 29 at Tuckahoe Community Center, 10am-12pm inside the community center.

This morning the Virginia Department of Health reports a seven-day average of 1,738 new cases a day and the seven-day average of positive test results is 18.5 percent. Hospitalizations and deaths remain at much lower levels than the days before vaccines were available. 

Dr. Sifri said the next few years could see yearly boosters similar to the flu vaccines. 

“Most of us, 95+ percent of us, have seen COVID in one way or another either through infection or have the experience of COVID vaccinations and have immune responses to the spike protein,” Dr. Sifri said. 

For more information, visit the Blue Ridge Health District website

New group announced for reformatted Chamber program 

For many years, the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce has operated a program to bring together people who have an interest in building community in Central Virginia. The pandemic put Leadership Charlottesville on hold, and now the initiative has been rebranded the Leaders Lab of Greater Charlottesville.

“After a rigorous review process, our selection committee is thrilled to announce an inaugural cohort that reflects our goals of individual excellence as well as diversity of geography, industry, race, gender, age and more,” said Elizabeth Cromwell, President & CEO of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce in a press release. 

The Chamber now works with three other groups to operate the program which seeks to “build ‘a network of doers’” according to the release. The curriculum for the nine-month program been written in collaboration with the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, and the Institute for Engagement and Negotiation, also at UVA. 

“Program participants will learn best practices in conflict resolution, multi-party negotiations, cultural competence, meeting facilitation, and many more skills they can put to work immediately in their careers and in the community,” reads the press release.

For a full list of who’s in the first cohort visit the Chamber’s website at cvillechamber.com 

Albemarle Supervisors direct staff to participate in TJPDC-led Safe Streets grant application

Transportation staff at the Thomas Jefferson Planning District are putting the final touches on an application for federal funding from a new grant program created as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed by President Joe Biden earlier this year. 

The Safe Streets and Roads For All program can be used to develop a safety action plan, plan for projects listed in the plan, or actually build projects listed in the plan. There’s a deadline of September 15 for eligible groups to apply. 

Last week, Supervisor Ned Gallaway asked why Albemarle is not making its own application or participating with other localities. 

“The TJPDC is putting a regional effort forward but it’s not the only way to participate,” Gallaway said. “You can participate as a county.” 

Gallaway disagreed with staff’s decision to not pursue the funding and wanted an explanation. 

Kevin McDermott, one of the county’s planning managers who specializes in transportation, said there have been limitations on staff time. He noted the county was recently awarded $2 million to plan for a multimodal trai l from the Blue Ridge Tunnel to Charlottesville via Crozet, funding that also flows from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.  (read my story)

“This one was brought to us, the Safe Streets for All grant, was suggested to us through the TJPDC back in towards the end of July I think that the city of Charlottesville was interested in going for a grant,” McDermott said. “The way this is set up is that they favor regional groups going after this together.” 

A transportation priority list adopted by the Board of Supervisors in 2019. A new one will be created as the Comprehensive Plan process continues. Take a look at the 2019 list here.

McDermott said his staff made the determination to not participate at this time because the timing wasn’t right. 

“Part of those timing considerations are that as you may or may not know we are also going for a separate grant right now called the Reconnecting Communities grant and we are planning to bring that to the Board in early October to discuss that and ask your support for that one,” McDermott said. 

McDermott said that project would seek to make improvements on U.S. 29 from the border with Charlottesville all the way north to the Rivanna River.  He said the TJPDC is moving forward and last week there were briefings in Louisa County and Fluvanna County. Sandy Shackelford, transportation planning manager for TJPDC, confirmed that both localities are on board.

The Nelson County Board of Supervisors will be presented with the grant opportunity at their meeting tomorrow, as will the Greene Board of Supervisors. Localities will all have to make a local match not to exceed $30,000.

“So the idea would be to create a safety action plan for the entire region with the goal of reducing or reaching zero deaths on highway facilities in the region,” McDermott said. 

Gallaway said Albemarle should be part of the regional safety plan, and he suggested setting aside the money for a local match in the hopes of qualifying the county to get federal dollars to build projects. He acknowledged the potential time crunch for staff. 

“Sometimes it’s said you don’t want to put so many pokes in the fire but when it’s attempting to get money to solve transportation which many could argue is our number one issue in the county, we should as many pokes in the fire as we can,” Gallaway said. 

McDermott said for Albemarle, the not-to-exceed amount for a local match would be $60,000. 

Several other Supervisors also expressed support for Albemarle to join the regional program. They took action later on in the meeting to formally agree to participate. 

Albemarle schools to review name of Meriwether Lewis Elementary School

An elementary school in Ivy is the latest in Albemarle County to go through the process of determining whether its name is appropriate in the 21st Century. A committee is being formed to review whether Meriwether Lewis Elementary should continue to be named after the 19th century American explorer. 

“This is a great opportunity for Meriwether Lewis Elementary School families to gain a greater understanding of their school’s namesake and to build community in the process,” said Karen Waters, the director of community education for Albemarle County Public Schools. 

The committee will include Principal Jennifer Underwood, at least three teachers, three parents, and two community members in the school’s catchment area that do not have children currently enrolled as a student. 

Meriwether Lewis Elementary is the eighth school to go through the renaming process, which was put into place by the School Board in October 2018. So far, elementary schools named after Broadus Wood, Mary C. Greer, and Virginia L Murray will keep that name. 

Paul Cale Elementary became Mountain View Elementary on July 1, 2020. Mortimer Y. Sutherland Middle School was renamed Lakeside Middle School on July 1, 2021, and Jack Jouett Middle School became Journey Middle School just over two months ago. Murray High School has been named the Community Lab School. 

Second shout-out: The Plant Northern Piedmont Natives Campaign 

Since the very beginning of this newsletter, one long-time Patreon supporter has used his shout-out to draw your attention to the work of the Plant Northern Piedmont Natives Campaign. The campaign is a coalition of grassroots partners including motivated citizens and volunteers, partner organizations, and local governments who want to promote the use of native plants. Summer is winding down, and pollinators are still active! You can get ready for next spring. Want to learn more? Visit plantvirginianatives.org to download Piedmont Native Plants: A Guide for Landscapes and Gardens

Tourism kiosk opens on Charlottesville Downtown Mall 

An entrepreneur who seeks to promote the Charlottesville area as a destination and who operates several tourist lodging spaces and has announced the opening of a new storefront on the Downtown Mall to help visitors find out what to do. M. Travis Wilburn spoke Friday at the opening of Charlottesville Insider, a kiosk in the 100 block of East Main Street. 

“In 2017 we all know what happened here shortly over five years ago and I watched tourism completely fall apart,” Wilburn said to a crowd of several dozen people. 

Wilburn got involved with the tourism industry in 2008 when he was working for C-Ville Weekly and saw the potential when he heard one winery had several hundred guests at an evening event. In 2010, he started Stay Charlottesville with Bill Chapman, the owner of the Oakhurst Inn. They worked with developer Keith Woodard to renovate 101 East Main Street as the Old Metropolitan Hall

M. Travis Wilburn describes the reason for the Charlottesville Insider space while Rita McClenny of the Virginia Tourism Corporation looks on  (Credit: Sean Tubbs)

The new venture is intended to provide a place for tourists to the mall to get information. 

The Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau used to operate out of the Downtown Transit Center and there was a help desk. But, the CACVB has moved their offices and now conduct public outreach through two mobile field offices. These didn’t run yesterday due to the threat of inclement weather. (learn more)

Wilburn said the pandemic has devastated business on the Downtown Mall and more needs to be done to help restaurants survive. 

“In March 2020, I realized, oh wow! I thought August 12 was bad,” Wilburn said. “This is now awful. This is absolutely horrific. There was zero demand.” 

Wilburn said the vacation rental industry started to rebound by that summer as people sought to escape, but successive COVID waves have made it difficult for restaurants to return. To help out, Wilburn and others created an online presence known as Charlottesville Insider to spread information about what he said is “boutique and unique” about the area. 

Now the space next door that recently housed a medical supply company has been converted into a physical presence. 

“And that’s what this office is next door,” Wilburn said “It’s Charlottesville Insider’s public-private visitors center.” 

Wilburn said he walks up and down the Mall every day and remains concerned.

“The business community left during COVID and if you haven’t been downtown you can see it every single day,” Wilburn said. “I used to have to run to get a seat at a restaurant at 12 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. That no longer exists.”  

Wilburn said tourism can help make up some of the difference and he hopes the new office will help by giving people who are visiting a chance for people to talk to someone. He said he will promote other businesses not connected with his companies. 

Also in attendance was Rita McClenny, the president and CEO of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, even though there’s no public money in the venture. 

“Insider Charlottesville will provide a space for people to come on the Mall to gather information about what to do, when to do it, and where to do it, “ McClenny said. “It’s directional, it’s informative and it’s excellent customer service for the visitor.” 

The Virginia Tourism Corporation divides the state into ten regions, with Albemarle and Charlottesville in Central Virginia. McClenny said this specific part of the Commonwealth is very important to the industry. 

“This region means so much to Virginia tourism because it is a magnet for people who want to come and have a really elegant, sophisticated experience,” McClenny said. “It attracts people who want to have and come a profound outdoor experience.” 

The hours for Charlottesville Insider are Monday through Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 


Concluding notes for episode #429

Another Monday program in the books. How many installments will there be this week? Stay tuned all week and let’s see. I remain hopeful that one day one of these will be published before 9 a.m. but also remain realistic. I began work on this one at 5 a.m. this morning. I’ll continue to work for the rest of the day, including an appearance at 5 p.m. on Charlottesville–Right Now With Courteney Stuart on WINA. 

I work so much because this is my business, literally. Town Crier Productions is the name of the company I formed in August 2020 to try to figure out how to pay for the thing I want to do above all - write about towns, cities, counties, or anything else that looks like it rhymes with bunicipal. 

The best way to keep the business going is through a paid subscription through Substack. The company Ting will match your initial payment, and I am grateful for them, for you, and for whatever teacher I once had who told me to stick to my dreams.

With that in mind, I am now announcing the opportunity to give away 80 premium subscriptions to the newsletter. Someone has bought that number and I want to make sure the audience broadens. I’m still working out the basic criteria for how to hand those out, but at least one requirement will be that the recipient is under the age of 25. 

It’s no good writing about the details of local meetings if the people who will most live the longest under the decisions made today do not know about what’s happening at the tables of today. That’s what this newsletter and podcast seeks to do, and will always seek do to. Thanks for being a reader or a listener. 

But back to Ting.

And if you sign up for Ting through this link in this newsletter, you’ll get a free standard install, your 2nd month free, and a $75 Downtown Mall gift card! Enter the promo code COMMUNITY for full effect. Hooray for Ting!